Blowing Up Christmas

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By September 15, 1963, Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, where the Rev. John H. Cross was the pastor, had emerged as the civil rights movement's nerve center in that highly volatile and segregated city. College students, then high school students, and finally middle-school students had been joining the marches. In some cases, school kids had been jailed.

If the intent in locking up young black people was to cow them, it did not succeed.

"Can I go march?" 11-year-old Denise McNair asked her parents.

"No, you're too little," she was told.

"Well," the girl responded, "you're not too little."

And so this was a struggle in which the entire community was engaged.

Yet, there had to be limits -- didn't there? Twenty times in the past eight years, bombs had gone off in Birmingham; some of them to send a message, some of them designed to maim or kill civil rights leaders. But to dynamite a black church filled with families during a Sunday morning worship service? Even to those who lived through Birmingham's worst days, this was unthinkable -- literally.

When the blast went off, Denise McNair's relatives believed it was a thunderstorm. The wife of pastor John Cross thought of Sputnik, and the Russians. Others assumed it was an explosion at one of the city's aging foundries.

The rumbling they heard at 10:22 a.m. that Sunday was actually the sound of hate. As the 16th Street Baptist Church shook, several girls were caught in the basement rubble. Four of them -- Denise McNair, and 14-year-olds Cynthia Morris Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins -- were killed instantly. A fifth, Addie Mae's younger sister Sarah, was gravely injured, losing an eye and suffering lasting psychic wounds.

Ambulance and police sirens filled the air, mixing with the anguished cries of parents. "They are killing our children!" a mother cried out. As the church emptied, numbness turned to anger. Police officers, themselves stunned by what they were seeing, struggled to hold back the crowd. The Rev. Cross, found a megaphone and struggled to recite the famous psalm. "The Lord is our shepherd," he said between sobs. "We shall not want..."

As he spoke, some congregants noticed that only a single stained glass window in the church remained. It depicted Christ leading a group of little children -- but Jesus' face was blown out.

The next day, which is exactly 50 years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and the other top leaders of the civil rights movement were in Birmingham, planning a funeral. Despite King's personal entreaties, Carole Robertson's family insisted on a private ceremony. The other three were eulogized by King himself in a homily that riveted a nation.

"These children -- unoffending, innocent, and beautiful -- were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity," King said. "And yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity."

Denise, the youngest of the four victims, loved dolls and piggy banks -- and all living things. She once stopped a neighborhood baseball game because a dead bird was on the field; she insisted they not only bury it, but hold a funeral for the bird.

Carole was a budding academic star: a Girl Scout in Troop 264, a straight-A student at Parker High School, a member of the science club and the marching band. She had recently taken up the clarinet and was going to play in public for the first time Monday, September 16, 1963.

Addie Mae and her two sisters had taken 20 minutes to get to church that morning because Junie's purse, shaped like a football, proved an irresistible toy -- and they passed in back and forth as they walked.

Cynthia Wesley, the daughter of a high school principal, had a knack for bucking up the spirits of her classmates. "I was a fat little young boy, so some people didn't want to be bothered with me," prominent educator Freeman Hrabowski recalls. "Cynthia would be bothered with me...she would take time."

By Christmastime of 1963, with the country further shaken by the killing of a president, Martin Luther King's thoughts turned to the families missing such lovely young people.

"The coming Christmas, when the family bonds are normally more closely knit, makes the loss you have sustained even more painful," he wrote in a letter to Denise McNair's parents. "Yet, with the sad memories there are the memories of the good days when Denise was with you and your family."

"As you know, many of us are giving up our Christmas as a memorial for the great sacrifices made this year in the Freedom Struggle," King's letter continued. "I know there is nothing that can compensate for the vacant place in your family circle, but we did want to share a part of our sacrifice this year with you. Perhaps there is some small thing dear to your heart in which this gift can play a part."

The Rev. King was known as an inspiring orator, but this letter reminds us that he was also a stirring writer. His letter is evocative of U.S. presidents writing to the families of fallen servicemen. This is fitting: by December of 1963, King was the de facto commander-in-chief of a movement trying to complete the work that Mr. Lincoln and his armies had wrought at far-flung battlefields remembered even today by their locations: Vicksburg, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg.

The civil rights movement has its own litany of place -- names, too: Montgomery and Selma, Greensboro, and, fittingly, the Lincoln Memorial. But for a site that turned the tide it is hard to find a more hallowed ground than Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Editor of RealClearPolitics and author of the Morning Note, from which this piece has been adapted.

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